LISBON - Before his sentencing in Columbiana County Common Pleas Court Friday, Roger Gonda apologized to the emotional parents of the young girl he had previously pleaded guilty to having inappropriate contact with last summer.
"Except for current circumstances, none of you have known me or known my character. I must share something with you that has been burdening my heart since this occurred. I feel so undesirably ashamed," he said.
The 65-year-old Salem resident will serve nine years for two counts of gross sexual imposition and one count of importuning, all third-degree felonies.
The incidents occurred in June and July of last year at Southeast Friends Church on Franklin Avenue, just eight blocks from Gonda's apartment.
Assistant County Prosecutor Timothy McNichol suggested the nine-year sentence on the basis of protecting the public.
He said the girl's parents also requested the nine-year sentence, which amounts to three years served per charge.
"The facts are pretty straight forward, this occurred in a church," he said, adding that a church is a place where children should feel safe.
Gonda is not the pastor of the church but was serving in a church position when the incidents occurred, including one on July 29 in which he solicited the girl to engage in sexual activity with him.
The girl's parents wept while listening to his apology Friday, and her father bowed his head, averting eye contact.
McNichol said they did not want to make a statement due to the emotional nature of the proceedings.
Gonda's attorney, Charlie Kidder, argued he should be allowed to serve his jail sentence concurrently, meaning he would only serve three years on all counts.
"I do believe there is a remorse of conduct. I believe this was a very bad act but not a very bad man," he said.
He added Gonda has no prior record of misbehavior, and has even been leading Bible study classes in the Columbiana County Jail.
He also didn't believe McNichol's suggestion that Gonda register as a Tier II sex offender for 25 years to be necessary.
Gonda told the girl's parents not to allow his actions to blemish their idea of all Christians, or blame the church.
"I know my Father in Heaven has forgiven me. It is a good church. I did something very wrong," he said. "Apart from this, I am so sorry I caused little children to lose trust in someone."
Following his statements, Judge C. Ashley Pike said, "These are heinous crimes, there is no question of that," and for that reason, he imposed the nine-year sentence and Tier II sex offender registration.
Gonda will be required to register his address with the sheriff's office every 180 days for 25 years.
Pike also ordered five years post release control.
"I'd like to think that you are sincere... but society just can't stand what individuals like you have done and statements need to be made," he told Gonda following the sentencing.